God gives Moses a series of laws specific to the priests; In particular the specific restrictions applicable to them regarding marriages, sex and mourning; the laws about any physical blemishes of the priests and who can and cannot eat from the priestly gifts, and the laws defining what constitutes an acceptable or unacceptable blemish on an animal designated to be a sacrifice.
God then instructs Moses to tell the people about the festivals – Shabbat, Pesach, the counting of the Omer and Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Moses is given the rules about the Ner Tamid and the Shewbread, and then we are told about the incident with the blasphemer, and the death penalties for blasphemy against God and murder.
A piece of case law enlivens this sidra. The son of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother gets into a fight with an Israelite man and utters a blasphemy against God. He is put into prison while the people go to find out from God what they should do. God speaks to Moses and tells him to bring the man out, that everyone who heard the cursing should lay their hands on his head, and that everyone shall stone him till he died. This does happen in the text, but first there is an interlude of six verses where we are told about the death penalty for murder, then the requirement for compensation in the case of an animal that is killed; then the requirement for appropriate compensation when a person is maimed – lex talionis, the law of eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Then there is a reprise of the law that if one kills an animal one should ‘make it good’ and if one kills a person they shall be killed, followed by a reminder that there is one law for both the stranger and the home born because God is our Eternal God - and only then are we told that the people did as commanded in the case of the blasphemer – they brought him out of the camp and stoned him, as God had commanded Moses.
We have to ask ourselves – why is there a disruption in the smooth flow of the narrative? Why this strongly framed reminder that the law is given by God, that human life and animal life are both to be taken seriously, if not seen as equal in compensation?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein teaches that the interruption in the narrative comes because this is the first time in the history of the Jewish people that judicial capital punishment is enacted. Murder has certainly happened before – Cain killed Abel, Moses killed the taskmaster – but judicial execution is something else. We are reminded that life is not cheap, that taking a life can be a response only to something so heinous that no other punishment is adequate. So in between the sentence and its enactment there is a pause – for reflection, to remind us that the event is not carried out in a state of heightened emotion, to consider whether this is really what has to be done, to remind us that the taking of life is a terrible thing.
The interpolation in the text is one that catches our attention. First found in the book of exodus, the law of lex talionis – of retaliation and retributive justice is one that must be unpacked thoughtfully. While a surface reading may understand the text to be demanding that whatever is done by the perpetrator should be done to the perpetrator, any sense of justice would be outraged by the lack of equivalency in such a response. People are not identical so any retaliation would not be identical. For example to remove the eye of a person who already has poor sight might cause effective blindness. So rabbinic exegesis makes very clear that this is about compensation for damage rather than a mechanistic damage to others. It reminds us that human life is valuable, diverse and complex and must be thought about, cared for and appreciated.
And why is this excursus here between the sentence against the blasphemer and his execution? Surely again to remind us that all justice must be proportionate, equivalent to the crime, and must be thoughtful about the people to whom the justice is to be applied. Whatever we may think about biblical law, it is set against systems of either randomly applied justice or justice which favoured some over others. This text teaches us that one law is applicable to all, and that that law has to be considerate of all the people it serves. It is a principle well worth upholding.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild